'You're a little late today' – a meeting in the park

The man and the cat were well acquainted enough to sit quietly side by side.


Hibiya Park is located just across a busy road from the impregnable stone bulwarks that defend central Tokyo's most imposing landmark: the stately and majestic home of Japan's emperor.

Unlike the Imperial Palace, however, Hibiya Park is open to all. And since its dedication in 1903 it has been a true people's refuge – some 40 acres of gingko, dogwood, wis-teria, flowers, lawns, and ponds, with enough benches to accommodate the myriad office workers, salesmen, pram-pushing mothers, and jet-lagged tour groups who wander through in fine weather.

Some of the park's visitors come to eat bento box lunches at midday. Others sit with eyes closed and faces upturned to the sun. Most want little more than a few minutes of peace and quiet in the heart of one of the world's most frenetic cities.

But Hibiya is also a favorite haunt of two of Tokyo's most ubiquitous full-time residents. First there are the retired, the unemployed, and the homeless – men who come to the park to rest their bones and while away the daylight hours.

And then there are the cats. Lots and lots of cats.

Every major metropolis has its share of feral felines, but those in Tokyo seem to have absorbed some of the reserve and good manners of their hosts. The cats of Hibiya are obliquely inquisitive in the Japanese style. They watch the passing parade of humanity with calm curiosity, becoming more intrepid only when it looks as if a two-legged visitor might be willing to share a bit of fish from an unfinished sushi lunch.

Most of the cat-human encounters in the park are fleeting and unexceptional. But during my last visit to Hibiya I witnessed an extended interaction between man and beast that was, I thought, a touch more profound.

A few benches from my own I saw a middle-aged man whose face betrayed the buckeye-colored hue of someone who spent long hours outdoors.

Was he unemployed? Homeless? Or did he simply like to spend time in the park? I was pondering these questions when a movement behind the man caught my eye.

From beneath a bush an orange cat appeared. The cat took a few tentative steps into the light, looked at the man briefly, then walked purposefully to a spot on the path just a few feet in front of his bench.

The cat plopped down on her side and gazed at the man expectantly. The man responded by smiling and speaking a few words of Japanese, which, from his tone and attitude, I took to be something like, "You're a little late today." It seemed obvious that these two had met before.

At that point the man rose from his bench, stepped over to the cat, knelt down, and began to stroke the animal's head.

Within seconds the cat stretched out fully on her back, and the man proceeded to give her the massage to end all massages.

Gently but forcefully he rubbed the cat's sides and belly with both hands. The cat remained completely relaxed, neither moving nor making any effort to stop her masseur's ministrations.

The man then concentrated on scratching the cat's head and ears as the latter tilted her head back to afford him easier access to her neck. After a minute of that the man stretched the cat's forelegs to their full length above her head and began to pump them back and forth in a sort of cat calisthenics. Then, when that portion of the routine was over, he gave the cat a few final rubs of her belly, stood up, and returned to his bench.

For a good 15 seconds the cat continued to lounge on the path in a blissful stupor. Finally, with a whisk of her tail she rolled over, stood up, walked to a spot beside the man, and sat down. And there they remained – each alone, yet both together – communing on a level that a mere bystander could never understand.

It was hard for me to tell which of them had derived the most satisfaction from the encounter. In the end, of course, it didn't matter.

It was clear that amid the swirling, overwhelming impersonality of this enormous city, two lonely and, I suspect, loving creatures had breached the bulwarks of solitude to create a small but meaningful world of their own.

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